Chapada Diamantina



John Malathronas is being nibbled by the wrong kind of fish



I was floating in the cellophane-clear waters of the aptly named Silver Lake (Pratinha) in the Diamond Highlights of Brazil – Chapada Diamantina – and I was tired. Yet, my aching body  I was content rather than tired and miserable. The exertion was a high in itself.


Chapada Diamantina has this effect on you. Six hours by bus out of Salvador, this national park is the crossroads of three of Brazil’s biomes – it contains remnants of the Atlantic rainforest, the low-bush vegetation of the cerrado and the chaparral-like caatinga. Along with Bonito in the Pantanal it has established itself as Brazil’s Mecca for trekking and adventure tourism: not only does the landscape change after several hours walking; so does the ecosystem you are hiking in. The hostels that have sprung up in Lençóis, the gateway to the Chapada, in the last ten years can’t get enough guides for the backpackers who are only now discovering this corner of the world.


I was exhausted,  because I’d climbed mesas like the 300-metre near-vertical  Pai Inacio which provides a 360-degree view of the park, and on whose flat top you can spot bromeliads, cacti and orchids that have delighted botanists for generations. 


I’d been down caves – but not the bog-standard caves you know. Lapa Doce, for instance, is an extensive, dry cave, the third largest in Brazil, whose stalactites and stalagmites had formed only during the wet season and are dry during the rest of the year. The floor is thus composed of dry dust, so fine that the guides who spend a lot of time inside have to wear masks to protect their lungs from silicosis.


I’d jumped feet first into deep water potholes like the Poço do Diabo where the Rio Mucugezinho forms small waterfalls you can swim under for an environmentally correct hydromassage.


I’d lain in shallow rock pools where the constant swirling movement of the river water turns them into natural jacuzzis.


And to top it all, as I was floating in this remarkably warm little mountain lake, I was being nibbled at by little fishes – OUCH!  – eating the dead skin off my body for free. I was happy and content until the young German couple walked by.


“Hey”, I waved to them. “Have you had the dead-skin treatment yet? I’d be paying hundreds of pounds for this back home. OUCH! The fish do bite, though, I give you that. Piranhas-in-training! ”


The Germans didn’t look too impressed.


“They are not the same kind of fish”, they replied laughing. “Our guide said that. These pull out your hair, thinking it’s worms. So they hurt, no?”


For a while I didn’t know what to say, my ignorance prominent for the Germans to see.


“Ha! Depilation! That costs even more,” I countered. “Do you know the cost of sugaring in London nowadays?”


And I made my way quietly down the shore.